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Can a man really write a Mills & Boon?

Mills and Boon mock-up

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

As Mills & Boon marks the end of its centenary year, the romance publisher is still selling millions of copies. Its 200 staff writers have something in common - they're all women, except for one. So how does a gruff former rugby player Yorkshireman writing under the pseudonym Gill get away with it?

When it comes to blushing heroines and dashing heroes, Roger Sanderson is well versed in the art of seductive prose.

The Mills & Boon author has had 48 books published over 12 years and seen his work sold in 26 countries around the world.

Roger Sanderson
Roger aka Gill Sanderson churns out four Mills & Boon books a year

But unlike the subjects of his fiction, Roger the romantic writer does not conform to the stereotype.

The broad-shouldered Yorkshireman goes weight training three times a week, mountain climbing at the weekends and enjoys a drink with friends at his rugby club in Waterloo, Merseyside.

Now an active member of the Romantic Novelists' Association, he believes he would probably be a soldier if he was not a writer. His father was in the Royal Air Force for 35 years, his grandfather won a gallantry medal in World War I and one of his four sons is a Royal Navy captain.

But life chose a very different path for Mr Sanderson, the path of breathy romantic fiction.

"I'm happily married and I have been in love, therefore I have the basic qualification," he suggests. "I know what it feels like and from there everything will develop."

Modern Mills & Boon book
Sex sells: A modern-day cover page

But there was plenty to learn along the way.

"Women's feelings are just a little different from men's. I have to try to put myself in a woman's frame of mind," he says.

"They're far more interested in relationships and talking about them.

"Talking to women helps give me inspiration. Sometimes I'm told that no woman would say or do a certain thing, it's not always obvious.

"Over the last 12 years I think I've improved my understanding of women. For example, on the subject of abortion, you have to deal with that very carefully indeed and reactions to it.

"I used to have the male attitude that in certain circumstances it was the reasonable, proper thing to do - the other side of that is what does it feel like?

"The emotion is all. Women tend to be more emotional probably."

A CULTURAL PHENOMENON...
100 years old on 28 November
UK book sale every three seconds
130 million global annual sales
Published in 26 languages
1,300 authors worldwide

Source: Mills & Boon
Whatever the provenance of Mr Sanderson's insight into the psyche of the female romantic fiction aficionado, he has clearly achieved a high level of empathy, churning out four books a year.

Mills & Boon is quick to dispel any suggestion it is a relic of a bygone age. It says it sells a book every three seconds in the UK and 130 million a year worldwide.

The economic downturn has even triggered a rise in sales as people look for escapism and a happy ending.

Editorial director Karin Stoecker believes healthy sales will continue.

"Generally speaking, we have been quite successful in gloomier economic times... it's a value-priced entertaining escape from otherwise harsh realities."

So, how did it all begin for the man of Mills & Boon?

Mills & Boon title from 1966
Cover story: This Bond-esque title page from 1966 reflects the times

He used to write scripts for Commando war comics until one day he picked up his daughter's Mills & Boon on the sofa and promptly read another four.

At first he co-wrote with his wife Gill, but was soon sufficiently interested to take her name and go solo.

Today, he specialises in medical romances, setting many of his stories in the Lake District around chisel-jawed doctors, with hearts either beating or melting.

His latest book has the working title A Nurse At Christmas Time and is about a doctor who returns to the Lakes from London and bumps into a girl he met 15 years ago.

It is not likely to shy away from the odd sex scene or two.

"We're much more open now about the physical aspect of love making, we're through the bedroom door now," Mr Sanderson explains.

"It must be, above all, emotionally driven. The physical must be subservient to feelings."

Ms Stoecker agrees that emotions are key and describes what she looks for in a Mills & Boon author.

MEN WHO WROTE AS WOMEN
Wizard of Oz author L Frank Baum penned girls' stories as Edith Van Dyne
Voltaire occasionally wrote as "Une belle dame" or "Catherine Vade"
Comic strip writer Peter O'Donnell was romantic novelist Madeleine Brent
SAS hardman Chris Ryan became romantic writer Molly Jackson
Scottish poet William Sharp wrote as Fiona MacLeod from 1893

"The first quality to have is an empathy with the genre and an understanding. You really need to be able to write emotion.

"It doesn't necessarily help to be a woman, but if you were telling a story from a female's point of view, it will help to have some insight into that point of view."

Academic and author Jay Dixon, who wrote an analytical study of the publisher in her book The Romantic Fiction of Mills & Boon, has read around 3,000 titles.

Some of the unsolicited manuscripts written by men stood out from those written by women for the way their female characters viewed themselves.

"The heroine, at some point in the story, always looked in a mirror and admired herself, something a woman would never do as she would only see her flaws," she suggests.


He drew her towards him so that not just their lips but their bodies were touching - just touching

Gill Sanderson
A Mother For His Son (Sep 2008)

She also believes male authors tend to go into more details about how something works than women.

But would she be able to find clues in Roger's text that his books were written by a man?

"I can find nothing in Roger's romances that would alert even an experienced reader to the fact that he is a man... Roger is one of the few men who does have the knack."

Perhaps it helps to be, as Roger admits, an old romantic himself.

"Every now and again you look at a woman and for a moment there's that little flare of remembrance of what it was like those years ago when you weren't married - and I think that's rather nice."


Here is a selection of your comments.

As a writer I always wondered if I could get away with writing something like this, and passing myself off as a female writer. As most do, I suspect my writing style would give me away immediately, although hopefully my work has enough emotion and focus on relationships as it is. Hats off to "Gill" who clearly has the right mind-set - a true talent, whatever you may thing about the genre! Well done.
David Brookes, Sheffield, England, UK

If women can invade the male world and do it well, kudos to a man who can do so well in such a feminine world. I am a M&B reader, and Gill Sanderson is a name I look for among several others, knowing that the storyline will be one I enjoy without needing to check the back cover first. Well done sir!
Rachel, Bedford UK

I am trying to write dialogue between men and it's really hard! I'm having to pass it by male friends for editing so that the language sounds more 'manly.' Women tend to use more words than men, so cutting everything down has been difficult to. If "Gill" can cross to the other side in writing without anyone noticing, I have enormous respect for his work.
Aicha, Camden

I think you'll find that men are often more romantic than women. Women expect romance...men have to provide it.
Mark , manchester, UK

I am currently working on a short film, for which I wrote the screenplay. I wrote all the characters without a specific gender, as we hadn't decided whether we wanted a female or male lead. After reading the script everyone felt the first-person narrative I had written sounded feminine. Whatsmore, upon casting all of the actresses auditioning for the part assumed it had been written by a woman! Gender is a social construct - especially in some as intangible as the voice behind prose. I don't think it is impossible for a writer. To deliberately choose to write as the opposite gender is theoretically no different than choosing to write as your own, since gender is a mental perception.
Rod Fleming, Glasgow, UK

Why describe a production rate of 4 books a year as "churning" them out? Roger is obviously a talented writer, working very hard. How many articles a year does the writer of this piece "churn out", I wonder?
Melanie Hilton, Holt, Norfolk

He approached the news article gently, lovingly. Something about it stirred him deep inside. He caressed its first paragraph, then, breathing deeply, drew it close to his eager reading glasses. She swooned. She had never been read like this before; so intently, so completely! [scene of overt textual nature deleted]
Abigail Fotheringay, Dunstable, Bedfordshire

Men can be romantic as well as women. I write stories for fun; my family read them my wife says they could have been written by a woman. I'm not a big romantic but I go into detail about a situation in a funny ironic way.
Kevin Humphreys, Liverpool England

I think your term "churning out four books a year" is extremely disrespecful - books are written, and that includes romantic fiction which is just as valid as any other form of fiction.
P E Smith, Hinckley

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